Nature Nonfiction


If we had been able to see the top of Canisp from the edge of Loch Awe, we would have seen a proud hulk of a hill shining white with snow. As it was, the top was veiled in a distant mist which hovered on the edge of our vision in the dull grey morning. Unintimidated, we began our trudge up the seemingly endless slope. The weather was abysmal — half-sleet driven by a chill wind — as we sloshed through bog and rust coloured grass. 

After a time we looked up from our boots to see a group of stags looking back at us. Kirsten counted them silently with a rapidity which surprised me. ‘Eight’, she said with unintentional solemnity. Their antlers, illuminated by the late rising sun, suddenly glowed like polished ivory. These stags were the gang of losers in the rut. They had gathered to endure the winter together and commiserate each other on their respective defeats. They were coming down from the testosterone high. Each sad animal was a symbol of the absurdity of masculinity.

As we gained height, the weather began to change. The half-sleet morphed to whole-sleet, then hail, then snow. We were moving through microclimates and the action made me think of Ancient South America. The Incas used varying mountain altitudes to harness natural microclimates in their ancient agriculture. Many different crops requiring diverse conditions could be grown at different tiers of the same mountainside. 

The wind picked up as we got higher still, and it drove snow sharply against our faces. These tiny pinpricks of ice made it difficult for us to follow our bearing, and it was compounded by the ever increasing depth of snow below our feet. With windchill, the temperature had dropped to somewhere between -15 to -20 celcius. This is the environment I love best. It reminds me of being a child on one of those special, magical, unreal days of the year when it snowed and settled in Northamptonshire. I would roll about in it, throw snowballs, and give snowbaths heedless of the encroaching numbness and sharp tingling in my hands beneath soaking wet gloves. Only darkness would force us home. I sense those happy moments every time I go on a winter hillwalk. Kirsten spoke too of her nostalgia for family skiing holidays which was inspired by the whiteness around us.

Another reason for my being drawn to snowy summits is how their pallidity changes them. The lack of colour alters their place within the landscape. The peaks are iterated. They demand assessment, or scrutiny, of their blankness. In the right light they appear superimposed against the sky, hallucinatory, solid, uninhabited dreams.

Having been before, I knew there was a large windshelter where we could hide from the biting wind, eat our bannock and drink our tea. There are in fact two shelters on the summit, but only one is worth taking shelter in. The largest and best even has a draft excluding porch. As we sat in it enjoying our lunch, I couldn’t help but think of who built this structure. It is primitive enough in design to potentially be ancient, or conversely it could have been built a year ago, although I can find reference to it on Geograph from eleven years ago. I imagine it would have taken quite a bit of time to construct, not to mention effort. The peak is strewn with boulders so happily the anonymous builder was not short of materials, but even so, lifting that many stones into place would be a wearisome task. That’s assuming of course that it was built by one person. It is quite possible, in fact probable that it started as a simple cairn marking the summit. One day someone might have made the top and sat down to eat some lunch. Perhaps it was uncomfortable, so they moved a big slab-like stone over to sit on. Then someone else came along and intuitively recognised that there was room for more stones to be shifted into place. They manoeuvre a few into a circle shape. Perhaps it was an irresistible instinct to impose order on the wild chaos of Assynt’s hills. Then more, and yet more people visit the summit over the course of several years, perhaps even decades, and add a little rock here and there, until you have the structure we see today collectively built. An example of folk architecture. It is organically grown form the cumulative minute decisions over the years. Built by no one, and everyone.

Another theory I might entertain comes from the feeling I get when standing in the circle of stones. I get a strong sense that I am looking out from a high castle turret. Perhaps the shelter was built for the lookouts of Clan MacLeod. The hill does give good uninterrupted views in most directions.

Our bannock devoured and our bellies warm from tea, we kissed the rime covered rocks goodbye, grateful of the brief shelter it had given us. We spared a moment of thanks to the unknown architect before heading back down the way we had come. 

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